Last night — was it just 12 hours ago? — in the company of an Ent, a Tolkien Scholar, and a wizard of a Webmaster, I tumbled head-over-heals into Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Like many who’ve waited two decades plus for the opportunity to see a new version of LotR play out on the big screen, I was filled with excitement, anticipation, preconceptions, and even a little dread.

The details… the details… oi! the details! There is simply too much to gush about so I’ll save the finer points for emails, chats, or perhaps another review. Jackson’s Fellowship is a visual, auditory, intellectual, emotional, and perhaps even spiritual feast. I left the viewing of that film feeling like a hobbit after Bilbo and Frodo’s birthday party… but OH SO EAGER for the next meal!

Great minds set to work on this script. Wondrous strokes of brilliance transferred key dialogue and character moments into places and situations that were different from the text of FotR, but poignant, appropriate, and in a way that captures the author’s intent. From the (a bit lengthy in my opinion) Galadriel prologue to Gandalf and Frodo discussing Gollum and other character expositions or interactions, Jackson, Phillipa Boyens and Fran Walsh have made the rich details and layers of ideas and histories thoroughly accessible to the non-Tolkien audience. It’s clear who and what are at risk in Middle-earth, and even the first timers will understand the promise and peril of this Quest.

Also brilliant is the film’s casting. Jackson’s troop of actors deliver command performances and make the story, well… real. I am awed by the work of Ian McKellen, Sean Bean, and Viggo Mortensen. Elijah Wood and Ian Holm are so well cast for their parts that you might think they were born to play these roles. Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd were terrific, and Sean Astin made me cry. Liv Tyler –’Xenarwen’ critics, feh!– was excellent, and Orlando Bloom and John Rhys-Davies did very well in the little screen time they ended up with. Christopher Lee is a perfect Saruman, but one detractor for me was Hugo Weaving as Elrond (couldn’t shake his Agent Smith character identification), and I’m still not sure about Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel. The dozens of other characters and their delivery –Barliman, the Ring, Craig Parker’s Haldir– are also spot on.

Ian McKellen virtually was the movie for me on this first viewing. His work is some of the most poignant, versatile, and dexterous I’ve seen. I’m not the world’s most experienced film critic, but I’ve seen hundreds of movies, and this performance ranks right up there with Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch and other perfectly-cast roles. His eyes, his voice, his stature, his wit: Sir Ian brings Gandalf the Grey to life!

The pacing of the movie was also very well done. Although Tolkien’s original storyline takes loads of hits and cuts, I could not believe that I’d been watching the movie for almost three hours. Of course I’m sad to see Bombadil (and many of the author’s other gems) go, but I didn’t really miss him in the viewing. Very intense action sequences are strategically placed throughout the film so the viewer is carried right through to the end without being overwhelmed or peaking too early. And the audience is left wanting more!!

Howard Shore’s score is another facet to FotR that makes it a landmark in movie history. The music of the film adds a depth and body that make the package complete. Shore’s craftwork reinforces, underpins, and brings to fullness Jackson’s vision. Shore’s score doesn’t just fit well like a pair of hobbit prosthetic feet, it adds layers of richness and meaning that capture the joys, dangers, and mysteries of Middle-earth. I’m picking up a copy on my way home from the airport today.

Middle-earth itself still awes me in the echoes of FotR playing in my mind. It was as if I WAS THERE!! The unbelievable sets and film locations are almost easy to take for granted because they are so well done. Bag End looked every inch the proverbial (wealthy) hobbit hole, Rivendell’s grace and beauty enchant, Moria is stunning, and the timelessness of Lothlorien made me want to linger there for a great while. Even though I know this is fantasy literature on a movie screen, the realness and authenticity of these places and sets were able to penetrate and imprint themselves in the nooks of my mind as well as Tolkein’s own text.

The incredible details and minutiae painstakingly obsessed over by Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger’s Weta team complete the Jacksonian Middle-earth package. Realia of the lives, times, and cultures of the varied peoples in the story bring the viewer deep into Tolkien/Jackson’s world. It’s as if someone just showed up with a film crew and started recording the story as it took place in a Middle-earth that exists. Special effects are a key component — hobbits and humans interact seamlessly — but the ‘simple’ effects like Boromir’s costume and equipment, tobacco pipes, Minas Tirith’s dusty, cluttered library, ancient statues and icons standing and fallen… these subtle elements are another component that make Jackson’s FotR seem so real.

Special effects are also phenomenal in this film. Even though I’d seen so many spoilers over the years, I was still on the edge of my seat in many sequences. The Ring effects were creatively well done, and the cave troll kicked me in the teeth too. Dramatic Orthanc/Isengard footage, back history battle scenes, the Fords of Isen… it’s hard to do the special effects justice without getting into too many spoilers, so I’ll quit here.

I know this story well. It’s been with me since I was 12 years old. I don’t speak Elvish, but this is a tale I know. Seeing it last night, however, was almost a wholly new experience for me. Jackson’s vision/production of LotR is decidedly not Tolkien’s. Instead, it’s a new Lord of the Rings to fall in love with and relive again and again. Tolkien’s world is all about the text, the interplay of language and teasing-out of ideas and images; Jackson’s is boldly different, yet deliciously the same. I was worried that the film would spoil future readings of the story, but I believe that Jackson has purposely left out things that could have easily been included, which will still make reading LotR the amazing experience that it is. In contrast, Jackson and company have intentionally reworked bits of plot, brilliantly transplanted vital dialogue, and taken some liberties with characters to bring Tolkien’s passion to life.

I’m not so blind with ecstasy that I didn’t find a few faults in the movie. When I compared my mental notes with my colleagues, I found that the things that bothered me were mostly unnoticed by others. In contrast, Quickbeam pointed out some smart observations where there was a bit of inconsistency that never occurred to me. However, there was consensus on a few points (for instance, Galadriel’s temptation by the Ring) that were less than stellar. Still, in sum, the minor negatives that popped up for me did not bring down the movie at all.

What I love the most about LotR: FotR is that in my lifetime I have had another opportunity to be immersed in another real vision of Middle-earth. The Jacksonian touch is everywhere, from subtle beauty to grotesque darkness. I am pretty sure I saw a nod to King Kong in Balin’s Tomb and Quickbeam nearly jumped out of his bark a dozen times thanks to the Jackson magic. I am astounded by the all-encompassing vision and force of will that it took to create The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. I’d wager to say that even The Professor himself –technophobe and all– would be pleased.

*Tookish bows low.

Peter Jackson, I am forever at your service!

Now can’t you bump up that DVD release date just a few months??!! And how about a summer release date for The Two Towers… 🙂

O, and by the way, THANK YOU PJ, and THANK YOU to all who had a hand in creating this incredible film.